Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 31, 2011

2011.07.31 “Wrestling With God” – Genesis 32: 22 – 31


“Wrestling With God”

Pastor David L. Haley

Genesis 32: 22 – 31

July 31st, 2011


But during the night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He got them safely across the brook along with all his possessions.

But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.

The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”

Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”

The man said, “What’s your name?”

          He answered, “Jacob.”

The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”

Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”

          The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.

Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”

The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip.”

Genesis 32: 22 – 31, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson


Long before Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars, those of us who grew up in the fifties found our heroes in westerns.  Long after real cowboys had bitten the dust, it was the myth of the American West that provided the setting for heroes who took their stand against bad guys.


In every great western, whether High Noon, Gunfight at the OK Corral, or Unforgiven, you know from the outset that there is a showdown coming.  In the end, if all goes well, though the hero might leave wounded, he would be the last man standing, and ride off silhouetted in the sunrise.


But it wasn’t just westerns.  Joseph Campbell, the scholar of mythology, wrote a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he said that all such stories from around the world which have survived for thousands of years, share a fundamental structure, which he called the monomyth. In a well-known quote from the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarizes the plot:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Today, in our reading from Genesis, this describes what happens to Jacob. In fact, the story of what happened to Jacob at the River Jabbok is one of the most powerful stories in the Bible.


Part of my weekly sermon preparation is to listen to a twenty-minute audio from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, called “Sermon Brainwave.” Of the four scholars who participate, one said the story of Jacob’s dream was his favorite Biblical story, this week another said this story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is his favorite Biblical story. In fact, those two stories are the “bookends” of Jacob’s story.  So powerful is Jacob’s experience at the Jabbok, it still speaks to us today.


For those not here on previous Sundays, here’s what’s happened so far.  Jacob, a grasping schemer from birth, cheated his brother Esau out of his family birthright, and then his father Isaac’s blessing.  When Esau threatens to murder him, he flees home.  On the way, at Bethel, he has a dream of a stairway reaching to heaven, in which God promises him, though unworthy, that he will be the heir to the promise made to Abraham of a land and a dynasty, through whom God would bless the earth.


Of course, to found a dynasty, you need a wife, so last week we found out how Jacob got not one wife, but two, Rachel and Leah, for just fourteen short years of servitude to Laban, his uncle.  In time, Jacob becomes a rich man.


But as you will find if you read Genesis chapters 29 through 32, throughout, it seemed like a contest of who could “outcheat” the other. As I said last week, you finally decide that in this family, cheating and deception must have some genetic predisposition. Finally, after many years, God again appears to Jacob in a dream and tells him its time to go home. Not even telling Laban, Jacob sneaks out of town, taking everything with him, though not without a final confrontation.


Now, as he heads toward “home,” Jacob receives news which gives him immediate indigestion.  Esau his brother, Esau whom he cheated, Esau who threatened to murder him on sight, is coming to meet him, along with 400 warriors. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “Jacob was scared. Very scared.” Judgment day has come.


What to do? He can’t go back to Laban, and he’s terrified about meeting Esau. Panicked, Jacob acts according to his nature and history.  He divides his party, with the hope that at least half might make it. He sends a gift of livestock on ahead as a gift, hoping to soften Esau up. He even sends his wives and kids on ahead, as a buffer?  (After you, my dear!)

And Jacob prays, not unlike we pray when we’re in deep trouble. (Help me help me help me . . .) However, unlike the prayer Jacob prayed at Bethel, as a young man, at least the prayer Jacob prayed at Jabbok reflects that he has learned something.  As the old saying goes, “The only real mistake you make is the one you don’t learn from.”  And so Jacob prayed:


“God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, God who told me, ‘Go back to your parents’ homeland and I’ll treat you well.’ I don’t deserve all the love and loyalty you’ve shown me. When I left here and crossed the Jordan I only had the clothes on my back, and now look at me — two camps! Save me, please, from the violence of my brother, my angry brother! I’m afraid he’ll come and attack us all, me, the mothers and the children. You yourself said, ‘I will treat you well; I’ll make your descendants like the sands of the sea, far too many to count.'” (Genesis 32: 9 – 12, The Message)


Unless we’ve never prayed a “God save me” prayer, I don’t think we can be too critical.  It wasn’t the first prayer motivated by fear and it won’t be the last.  By now, God must know the words in every language, all too well.


Having sent everyone on ahead, now alone, Jacob perhaps hopes for a good night’s sleep, for whatever happens, he has a big and eventful day ahead.  But it wasn’t to be, as nights before big and eventful days often are not.  Do you remember the story about Charles Lindbergh, the night before he flew non-stop across the Atlantic? The night before his 34 hour flight, just when he needed sleep the most, he couldn’t sleep a wink.


For Jacob it wasn’t to be either, but for another reason.  Out of the night, Jacob is attacked by an unknown assailant. Suddenly, for all his cunning, Jacob’s life is reduced to a physical struggle, man to man, muscle to muscle. Can you hear the groaning and yelling?  Can you feel it?


Who was this unknown assailant? Throughout the centuries, readers, rabbis, theologians, even psychologists have puzzled over the story. Is Jacob wrestling with himself? With Esau? With an angel? With God? Or, with all the above?  And, is this wrestler an adversary or an advocate?  If he is an advocate, he has a strange way of showing it.


But then again, notes renowned Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, this is what happens to us at night. There are aspects of the night, like darkness, that makes all our struggles worse, more intense, more frightening. So when we lie in our beds at night and toss and turn, or get up because we can’t sleep, we struggle, like Jacob wrestling in the dark. Like Jacob, at such times we struggle, not only with ourselves, but with others, with angels and demons, and with God.


I can imagine Jacob thinking to himself, “Up to now, I regret that I have responded to difficult situations by lying and scheming and running. I deceived my father. I ran away from Esau. I fled Laban, instead of confronting him.  I hate myself for being a person who lies and runs, but frankly, I’m afraid to face up. But now it’s come to this and there’s no way out.” Ever find yourself in a situation like that?  One of my paramedic friends once put it this way:  “I was so low, I had to dig to find the bottom.”


Perhaps Jacob translates all his spiritual and emotional struggle into visceral strength, such that the contest continued all night. Finally, when his assailant determines that he can’t get the best of Jacob, he dislocates Jacob’s hip, a painful and debilitating injury.  “Let me go; says the man, “It’s daybreak.”


Even then, says Jacob, “I’m not letting you go until you bless me.”


The man said, “What’s your name?”


        He answered, “Jacob.”


The man says, “No longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”


Whoever it was, angel or human, whenever it was over, Jacob knew that ultimately, he had wrestled with God.  And so he named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”


By not defeating his conscience, Jacob wins. He outgrows his identity as Jacob the trickster and becomes Israel, father of the twelve tribes of Israel, the one who contends with God and people instead of avoiding and manipulating them.


It is interesting to speculate whether this story sets the tone, not only of Israel (formerly Jacob), but of Israel as Judaism throughout the centuries. God.  For surely, if in Islam the life of faith is submitting to God, in Judaism the life of faith is “wrestling with God.”  Given all that Jews have suffered through the centuries, I have always sadly understood Teyve’s line in Fiddler on the Roof: God, I know we are the Chosen People, but why don’t you choose somebody else for awhile?”  As Christians, as the other people of the book, “wrestling with God” is part of our legacy too. And so that wonderful line of St. Teresa of Avila:  “God, if this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.”


I like that. I like it that our relationship with God is not unilateral, but a real relationship.  That it is neither fatalistic submission nor unbowed independence. That it is praying and questioning, praising and arguing, embracing and wrestling.  Perhaps this is why what happened to Jacob at the River Jabbok is still so powerful.


When God spoke to Jacob in his dream at Bethel, while fleeing his brother, the sun was setting. Now, as Jacob leaves Jabbok to meet his brother, the sun is rising. He who once was Jacob, now Israel, limps away, both blessed and wounded, forever scarred and forever changed, the only triumph possible when we wrestle God.


        Perhaps the rising sun is indicative of what is about to happen. In what may be the most surprising ending of all, as Jacob and Esau approach each other, Esau runs up to Jacob, embraces him, holds him tight, and kisses him. And they both wept. Makes you wonder who had changed the most.


Says Jacob to Esau, “Please. If you can find it in your heart to welcome me, accept these gifts. When I saw your face, it was as the face of God smiling on me.”


Walter Brueggemann observes:


“Our life of faith is like that. Biblical faith offers no God who is not embedded in the fabric of human transactions. Thus estranged brotherliness leads to estrangement from God. Reconciled brotherliness, moreover, leads to reconciliation with God.” (Walter Brueggemann, “The Struggle Toward Reconciliation,” excerpted from the chapter “Wrestling God,” in Talking About Genesis: A Resource Guide, published by Public Affairs Television, Inc.)


Thus ends the lesson of Jacob, and what happened at the River Jabbok.  In our encounter with God, may we – like Jacob – leave both wounded and blessed.  Amen.


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